In 1970, just 1 in 5 U.S.-born PhD graduates in economics had a parent with a graduate degree. Now? Two-thirds of them do, according to a new analysis from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The trends are similar for other fields (and for foreign-born students), but economics is off the charts.
This partly reflects population trends: Over that same period, the share of parents with graduate degrees and college-age children rose 10 percentage points, to 14 percent, our analysis of Census Bureau data shows. But compared with the typical American, a typical new economist is about five times more likely to have a parent with a graduate degree.
The new analysis comes from Anna Stansbury of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Michigan graduate student Robert Schultz, who got their hands on detailed data on U.S. PhD recipients going back more than 50 years. The data includes extensive information about almost half a million recipients in the 2010-to-2018 period alone.
It shows that the elite dominate even more among the top schools that produce about half of all future economics professors. Among the top 15 programs, 78 percent of new PhDs since 2010 had a parent with a graduate degree while just 6 percent are first-generation college students.
To an outsider, the long path to a professorship can seem frustratingly opaque, particularly in economics. PhD programs tend to require a hidden curriculum of classes in subjects such as mathematics that are not technically required for economics majors. If you discover economics late in your college career and don’t have expert guidance, it might already be too late to get on the PhD track. Similar hidden hurdles lurk in the job market and academic publishing.
University of Southern California economist Robert Metcalfe said the hidden curriculum is just the beginning. Elite social networks determine which economists get accepted at top schools and published in top journals, and it can be difficult for first-generation students such as himself to break in.
“I’m always on catch-up. That’s because I come from a background that didn’t know anything about academia,” said Metcalfe, who grew up in southern Wales in the United Kingdom, where his dad worked as a warehouse man at a brewery while his mom stayed home to raise four kids. “I got tenured before the age of 40, but I just feel like I’m always one step behind in the academy.”